Walter Mondale Can't Abide Intolerance — or Secrets

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Leonard Lopate Show, former Vice President Walter Mondale talked about his half century in public life and his new memoir The Good Fight, A Life in Liberal Politics.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale discussed how the political tone has changed since his years in Washington, the danger of reliance on state secrets, and why the Carter presidency is ripe for a re-evaluation.

When Jimmy Carter asked the then-Minnesota senator to be his running mate, Mondale says he told him he would be vice president only if he could be a partner in governing. "I wasn't interested in the ceremonial post," he said. "I didn't want to wait around for funerals."

But the concentration of power in the Vice President's office during the Cheney years was not good for the country and made secrets of matters that should have been debated as public policy, Mondale said. He was also critical of the Obama administration's reliance on state secrets in prosecuting "War on Terror" cases.

I'm worried about some of that. Like the state secrets, that's a cop-out in my opinion. Because instead of the government having to demonstrate to a court that they have reasons for withholding information and proving that privately to a judge, they just say unilaterally, 'It's a state secret.' And they've done that several times. Not as much as Bush by any means, but I worry about that.

President Carter's time in office — widely considered a failure — will be reconsidered by historians, Mondale said.

I think Carter was a bigger success as president than he's credited with being. In my book I write about, we had a much higher success of passing fundamental legislation in Congress than have most presidents in the modern post-war period.  If you look at the Middle East talks, the Camp David breakthroughs, the opening to China, the Panama Canal treaty, around the world we were getting things done. But we had this technique of getting things done and not getting credit for it.

He deplored the heated and angry tone of national politics, and attributed it the conflation of civic issues with religion. "I think that the harshness that has really paralyzed the federal government and led to a lot of this polarization of American life really began when the Republican party started using the religiouus agenda and converted issues that were civic issues that reasonable people could debate into religious issues: good vs. evil," he said.

Asked about the Tea Party, Mondale said the tone of conservative activists was jarring.

I can't really abide the kind of intolerance and rigidity and kind of shouting. I just wasn't raised that way. The only way to get anywhere is to talk. Judge Learned Hand, the famous judge once said, 'The spirit of liberty begins with the notion that you might be wrong.' What I hear on the other side begins with the certainty that they're always right. I think somehow that has to break up so we can be reasonable and civil again.

Listen to the entire interview on The Leonard Lopate Show.